KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo &

Up to 2,000 Serb protesters rallied against Kosovo's independence in the new nation's tense north today, a few setting fire to EU flags in what has become a daily challenge to the country's secession from Serbia.




Protesters gathered beneath a banner reading "Kosovo is Serbia" in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica &

as they have every day since Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership proclaimed statehood on Feb. 17.




Serbs &

who consider Kosovo the heart of their ancient homeland and the cradle of their Serbian Orthodox faith &

reject Kosovo's independence as illegal.




Protesters also burned a poster showing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Serbia's pro-Western president, Boris Tadic.




Tadic opposes Kosovo's independence but advocates maintaining economic and political ties with the U.S. and other Western countries, despite their recognition of Kosovo's statehood.




Serbia's hard-line Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, in contrast, advocates severing relations with all states that recognize Kosovo's independence.




U.N. police guarded the main bridge separating the town's Serb and ethnic Albanian sides. today's protests were peaceful.




In Serbia, Kostunica reiterated that the Kosovo state "does not exist" as far as Belgrade is concerned. He said the Serbian government would seek to "maintain jurisdiction" in Serb-populated areas of Kosovo.




"There will be no stability in the region and the world until that decision is annulled," he said in Belgrade, adding that Serbia will not normalize relations with countries that have recognized Kosovo until they reverse their decisions.




Earlier, a senior Serbian official entered Kosovo to visit Serb communities &

a move Kosovo's deputy prime minister denounced as a provocation. Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, was making a one-day visit to meet with Kosovo's Serb minority and with Kosovo's top U.N. official, Joachim Ruecker.




Kosovo's ethnic Albanian deputy prime minister, Hajredin Kuqi, called Samardzic's visit a "provocation" by Serbia.